Ever since Romeo and Juliet took the stage, writers and movie producers have mimicked and adapted countless imitations of this timeless classic. It seems there’s something captivating about tragic love stories that makes us revisit them. Today, though, I’d like to show off three tragic love stories that preceded Shakespear’s most renowned work so you can have a better sense of how popular these types of stories were for pre-modern readers.
1. Pyramus and Thisbe
Source: Ovid’s Metamorphoses
To pass time while weaving, three sisters tell each other stories: the first tells the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Set in the city of Babylon, the story follows two youths who’d lived near each other’s house since childhood. In their youth they fell in love and pledged to marry each other, but their parents prevented their union. The only solace the lovers received was a fissure on the wall their houses shared, which they used to exchange their feelings for as long as they desired. One morning, Pyramus, the young man, suggested they meet outside the city at a grave nearby. They would deceive their families and the guards and find shelter under a tree.
Later that day, Thisbe slipped out of her home, left the city, and crossed the open country. She found the tree that Pyramus suggested, and soon after she rested, a lioness appeared, mouth dripping with blood. Thisbe made a run for it, leaving behind her veil; the lioness tore the veil asunder and left. A while later, Pyramus arrived and discovered Thisbe’s veil. In grief and convinced she is dead, Pyramus takes his life with a sword.
Thisbe returns to the spot, wanting to warn her lover of the danger she’d escaped, when suddenly she finds Pyramus on the ground. She cradles the body and tries to wake him. When she notices he has taken his life, she does the same, piercing the sword through her heart.
2. Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo
Source: there are many variations of this story. Click here for one version.
Accounts of the “Butterfly Lovers” date all the way back to 700AD. That stretch of time has inevitably caused many iterations, embellishments, and retellings of the original source material. Nonetheless, the story starts off simple: the daughter of a wealthy family, Zhu Yingtai, begs her father to let her attend school. Since this is ancient China, women are barred from developing their intellect, but if anyone has seen Mulan, they know a story can’t stop there. Our heroine persuades her father to let her attend school, the condition being that she disguises herself as a man. Thereafter Zhu is escorted by a disguised maid on her journey to school.
During her enrollment at the school, Zhu meets Liang Shanbo, and both grow a deep kinship with one another—in other words, they become best friends. Three years fly by and Zhu, returning home, discovers that her father has arranged a marriage for her with the son of a wealthy family in the neighboring village. She has no option but to accept. Furthering these changes of events, Liang comes over for a visit, who, in a shocking revelation, learns that Zhu is actually a woman. Love strikes him. He offers his hand to Zhu, though is rejected by the family on the grounds that a broken promise would bring shame to their name. Seeing he has no other choice, Lian dies of grief (es, that’s how it’s described). On his deathbed, he requests that he be buried by the road outside the village of Zhu’s fiancé. Devastated by Liang’s death, Zhu proceeds to mourn her beloved.
The wedding day arrives. While Zhu is escorted to the wedding ceremony, a sudden storm causes her carriage to stop near Liang’s grave. Zhu then notices her lover’s grave opening and, ignoring the rain and mud, plunges inside the hole. A while later, the storm clouds part, bringing back the clear sky. Onlookers soon watch a pair of butterflies fluttering around the grave, then disappear into the distance.
3. Charite and Tlepolemus
Source: The Golden A#&
The story of Charite and Tlepolemus is one of tribulation. During their wedding day, while Tlepolemus was offering sacrifices at shrines, a band of robbers stormed inside the couples’ home, stealing away Charite back to a cave high up in the mountains. She was held captive for a few days, even attempting an escape with the help of a man-turned-donkey by the name of Lucius (long story). Finally, Tlepolemus was informed of the robbers’ hideout and came up with a cunning plan to rescue his beloved: he donned rags and introduced himself to the robbers as the famous Haemus of Thrace (apparently a renowned thief from that region). Convincing the robbers with a little backstory, he soon announced his wish to become their leader, promising them immense fortune, and prepared a feast. They brought wine and cooked sheeps and goats; while the banquet intensified, our narrator-donkey noticed the robbers entering a trance, all except Tlepolemus. Then it clicked—Tlepolemus was serving pure wine! When the entire gang dropped, completely wasted, he freed Charite, placing her on the back of Lucius , and returned to their town where a huge crowd marveled at the couple’s miraculous homecoming. Then Tlepolemus went back to the cave and killed the bandits.
Now with the couple’s life back on course, they lived happily ever after, right? Well, no.
A former suitor of Charite, Thrasyllus, plotted to marry her no matter what. He gained the trust of Tlepolemus and ,one day during a hunting trip, drove his lance through his thigh, instantly killing him. When the news broke, Charite ran towards the hunting grounds and collapsed on the corpse. She spent many days in mourning; meanwhile, Thrasyllus slowly gained the trust of Charite’s parents. He eventually revealed his intention to marry her, though Charite grew suspicious. One night, Tlepolemus appeared as a ghost inside Charite’s dream and revealed the hidden truth behind his death at the hunting grounds. With this new revelation, Charite concocted a plan: Once the murderer comes around the house, she’ll yield to his desires and invite him to her room at the cover of midnight.
Once Thrasyllus made himself comfortable and dowed some wine mixed with soporific drugs brought by a household servant, Charite entered the room and gouged out his eyeballs, Oedipus style. Grabbing a sword, Charite ran to her husband’s tomb while the entire town, roused up by Thrassilus’ agony, chased after. Charite related the events to her servants and, not long after that, plunged the sword through her chest, exhaling her last breath.